Two things I have read a few days ago may warm the appetites and hearts of those planning to celebrate the forthcoming new year by having a blast, as the jargon goes in these cyber days. The first is the theory advanced by some scientists that adaptation to alcohol consumption by our bodies may have actually helped in human evolution. Are we, therefore, ‘hardwired’ to drink alcohol?
Not quite. But first a little preliminary explanation is required so as to understand the putative link between alcohol and evolution. In chemical terms, there are different types of alcohol, and the one contained in drinks fit for human consumption is known as ethanol, which is usually present in concentrations of 3-40% in alcoholic beverages.
The alcohol that enters the body goes into the stomach and finds its way to the liver for processing, just like many substances in the food we eat also go through this path. For this purpose, there is a class of chemical substances in the liver known as enzymes, which break down the alcohol into other substances, which are in turn responsible for the tipsy feeling felt through their effect on the brain, which they reach by way of the blood circulation.
These enzymes are called alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH), of which again there are several types, and whose production is under the control of specific genes. The one we are concerned with is ADH4. It is this gene which codifies for the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of the ethanol found in the alcoholic beverages that we consume.
The issue is: when did humans develop the ability to digest alcohol? As reported in a popular Indian magazine published from New Delhi, OPEN, till recently this was presumed to be when they first started manufacturing alcohol, about 7 million years BCE. The evidence was residues of the earliest known alcoholic beverage made up of a mixture of fermented rice, honey and fruit found in clay pots in China. However, a new study at Sante Fe College in the US, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, has pushed this back another 3 million years, to the time when our primate ancestors left the trees and began to walk on two feet on the ground, picking up and consuming rotten fruit that had dropped there.
What made them take to walking? Because of an abrupt shift in climate – climate change. The forest ecosystem was replaced by more widely dispersed forests and grasslands, so that our ancestors transitioned from a tree-based life to a more land-based one. When fresh fruit was scarce, they had no choice but to consume the rotting fallen fruit, which fermented and therefore contained alcohol. Those who could not digest it died, those who could survived and passed the gene – ADH4 — that allowed them to do so to their offspring.
Interestingly, ADH4 enzymes are found in the throats, tongues and stomachs of primates, the animals which include human beings along with orang-utans, chimps and gorillas. It may be recalled that the decoding of the genome has shown that we share nearly 99% of our genes with chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Tree-living orang-utans cannot digest alcohol, which humans and land-based chimps and chimpanzees can.
And so 2+2= 4: since our land-based ancestors survived because they could digest alcohol, we have inherited ADH4 from them, and are able to digest, and therefore consume alcohol. The larger issue is not whether we should, because we have been doing it for these millions of years. Initially as an adaptation to survive, and later for cultural and convivial purposes.
But we are humans, and are prone to excesses, and that’s where the problem lies – as everybody knows. Anything in excess is harmful, alcohol very much so. I will not launch into moralizing at this stage save, professional duty oblige, advising caution on medical and health grounds on the part of all consumers for their own good.
Others may draw another level of comfort from an anecdote associated with the famous poet Mirza Ghalib, very well known for his ghazals. Ghalib lived in the 19th century India, when the Mughal empire was in decline. Apparently once he was ‘warned that the prayers of a wine-drinker were never granted.’ His reply was, ‘My friend, if a man has wine, what does he need to pray for?’
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The advent of Narendra Modi
Since I have mentioned India, I may perhaps conclude with what may have been the most awaited positive political event in the world during 2014, in my view comparable in terms of expectations with the first election of Barrack Obama as President of the United States. As has happened during our own general elections on 10th December, nobody thought that Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate would lead his party BJP to such a stunning victory, obtaining a clear-cut majority in Parliament for the first time after 30 years.
Since then he has gone on several high-profile visits, including to Japan, Australia and the US, and has let it be known that India is open to greater business opportunities with foreign partners. The latter are not exactly queuing up at the gates just yet, as there are certain matters to be sorted out within India, but the signal has been very clear and well received, and expectations are very high.
So-called ‘controversies’ regarding Modi can promptly be dispelled by a level-headed reading of Andy Marino’s book ‘Narendra Modi: A Political Biography’ described by author and journalist Tavleen Singh as ‘the best book on Modi to date.’
With this, I wish Narendra Modi all the best for his grand plans for his motherland, and a Happy New year to him as well as to all my friends and compatriots. Additionally, I remind the latter to be moderate regarding alcohol for the festive season – they sure will be the better for it!
* Published in print edition on 30 December 2014